February 7, 2018
On February 6, 2018, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon spoke at Philadelphia’s The Franklin Institute (FI) on “The Fight for Facts: Science and the Art of Storytelling.” Moderated by FI’s Chief Bioscientist Dr. Jayatri Das, the stage was set to “to explore the critical role narrative storytelling plays in revealing the true nature of science.”
Dr. Das started the evening by sharing information from two Pew Research Center reports (2015, 2016). These reports found that the public trusts scientists (second to the military), but doesn’t always agree with them, and doesn’t always trust the process. (For additional Pew Research Center reports on science, visit http://www.pewresearch.org/science/). Dr. Das ended her introduction with the statement, “who we are shapes how we think about science.” This was the perfect introduction to the evening’s speaker, Amy Harmon.
Amy gave a short presentation before engaging in conversation with Dr. Das and audience Q&A. Amy started by sharing her experience preparing for and writing her NYT article, Climate Science Meets a Stubborn Obstacle: Students (June 4, 2017). The details she shared from her trip to Wellston, Ohio, were fascinating. It was important for all of us that live in and right around Philadelphia to note that some people have never been to a science museum or have never spoken to a scientist. One of her clear take-home messages for the audience was that “we need to give more thought as to how much people hold on to their beliefs.”
Amy continued with a discussion on the “social cost” to questioning and believing in certain science subjects, such as climate change. She said that if your social circle has a certain belief/non-belief on science, then you are not going to change – with the exception of middle school and high school students. Amy urged the audience to focus our attention on students, as the younger generation has shown they can change beliefs (as high school junior Jacynda Patton, featured in Amy’s article).
When it comes to adults, adult readers will follow along and can identify with an individual struggling to figure out what is “right” for science and society. Amy shared details on another NYT story she wrote, this time on GM crops in Hawaii (A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops, January 12, 2012). There was a virus killing off the papaya crops on the big island of Hawaii, and the island farmers welcomed a genetically-modified papaya plant resistant to the virus. But a bill was introduced to ban all genetically engineered crops on the island. One council member was on the fence for how to vote, as when he “googled” GMO, all of the results were links to articles and web pages on the negative impacts – and not scientific sources. This article is an engaging read and one of Amy’s excellent examples of storytelling.
One final point I’ll share that both Dr. Das and Amy emphasized is that the messenger “matters.” For the media, Amy said that it is a trust-building exercise, and it is important for the media to be physically present for these conversations (although, social media is also great for having direct conversations with people). Dr. Das reminded the audience that hands-on science and experiential learning, where individuals collect their own evidence, eliminates the messenger and allows for direct evidence and learning.
At the conclusion of the event, staff of The Franklin Institute encouraged the audience to visit stations in the lobby that described ways for individuals to be critical consumers of science information.
Although I learned much from this event, I think Amy may have learned something as well. With many scientists in the audience, one question Amy was asked is how we can get journalists to focus beyond the “what” of science and start reporting on the “how” science is done. She was very reflective when asked this question, so scientists, be ready – you may be asked by a journalist about your process and not the results!